Bruce Smith, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has been the site of many creative adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. The latest, Ivo van Hove’s “Kings of War,” which ran at BAM from Nov. 3 to 6, is a multimedia mashup of characters, lines and scenes from Shakespeare’s history plays.
“Extensively cut,” “deeply cut” and “severely cut” are some of the favorite phrases used by the reviewers of these types of experimental stage and film adaptations. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of “Kings of War,” observes that Van Hove and his adapters have decided “to strip the texts down to their political marrow.”
The implication is that deleting lines – not to mention deleting entire scenes and characters – is an act of cultural vandalism. It recalls Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus,” slashed with a chopping knife by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914, and Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” attacked three times during the 20th century, twice with knives.
Cutting, however, doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of something. It could mean prizing something so much that you want to cut it out and save it, perhaps putting it to creative use in something you’re making yourself. A “cut,” in this sense, could be a speech that you’re using for an audition or a scene you’re reworking in a short story or a character you’ve decided to make the subject of a painting. Cuts cut both ways. What has been cut out can be discarded on the cutting-room floor or it can be made the centerpiece of something new.
In such cases, cutting up Shakespeare is not an act of destruction but an act of creation. Professional playwrights in Shakespeare’s time even thought about creating scripts as “cutwork,” like constructing costumes by cutting and stitching. When playwrights collaborated on a script, each writer got separate pieces, in the form of separate scenes. Shakespeare participated in several such joint-author enterprises in the course of his career, and an argument has been made recently that Christopher Marlowe was one of his collaborators.
In the four centuries since Shakespeare’s death, artists in all kinds of media have carried out creative cutwork of their own.
Cutwork across four centuries
Decades before the types of cutwork we’re seeing today, beat writer William S. Burroughs and his friend Brion Guysin wielded pairs of scissors, cut up Shakespeare’s texts and rearranged them into verbal collages alongside cuts from other writers.
Particularly fruitful, they discovered, were cuttings that juxtaposed fragments of Shakespeare’s sonnets with fragments of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems. The effect, they said, was the creation of “a third mind.” I came across these examples in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, and they’re published, for the first time, in my recent book “Shakespeare | Cut.”